Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Heartburn By Nora Ephron

(Click here for information on the 2015 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the August selection, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.)


I confess, I had never heard of Nora Ephron’s roman a clef about the disintegration of her brief marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein until I was assigned the 1986 movie version for a class I took a few years ago; after that I noticed the book popping up on a lot of “top-10 favorites” lists.

The movie is kind of an odd duck: the Ephron/Nichols pedigree, the opening synthesizer riff of Carly Simon’s theme song, the poster pictured above all say “Rom-Com”, which it is not quite. Instead, it is stuck somewhere between the better-known titles Ephron would pen in the next decade (When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) and the suddenly-liberated-housewife-on-the-loose dramas of the 1970s (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, An Unmarried Woman).

The movie’s split personality sometimes works against it. It is hard to describe a comedy that is basically all about the marital betrayal Washington insider Mark Foreman (Jack Nicholson) visits upon his very pregnant wife, food writer Rachel Samstat (Meryl Streep). While it’s not terribly funny, most of the first half of the movie is based on sit-commy tropes about remodeling a townhouse when your Hungarian contractor disappears, and the one-note joke of “New Yorkers do things like this… but Washingtonians do things like this” and can you even GET a decent bagel in our nation’s capital, and what is the deal with the Eastern Airlines shuttle?

The saving grace of the movie is the performances of Streep and Nicholson, who disappear so far into their roles it’s hard to believe they’re acting- within minutes of their time together on screen they seem like an actual married couple. While your millage may vary, the best (and funniest) scene involves Nicholson’s character, bursting into “Soliloquy” from Carousel (“My boy Bill!”) upon learning of his wife’s pregnancy. First it’s sweet… then it’s silly… but then Nicholson keeps going, way past the point where it’s funny and it just becomes obnoxious… and then it keeps going, as scenes set across several days still have him communicating only through song,  about how his unborn son will grow as tall as a tree.

The couple’s marital bliss comes to an abrupt end when Rachel starts noticing that Mark is spending an awful lot of time running errands and she eventually uncovers an affair with Washington super-hostess Thelma Rice, a woman much too tall for him. Rachel, now seven months pregnant with her second child, takes her toddler daughter and flees back to New York City to hole up in her father’s apartment, with no clear path forward. Should she ignore the infidelity? Force her husband to quit his girlfriend? Start over on her own?


The book upon which the movie is based is much more surreal in its humor, and includes long passages about Rachel’s complicated family tree (her first husband left her for her best friend, and then her oft-married father then married said friend’s sister, so Rachel is barely speaking to anybody) and also includes recipes folded into the narrative, which Rachel associates with the incidents she is describing.

The plot of the book (such as it is) centers around a bizarre incident, when during her initial separation from her husband, Rachel flies back to New York and attends her old therapy group, which is held up at gunpoint by a mugger (in the film it’s basically a throwaway scene, although the mugger is played by a jarringly baby-faced Kevin Spacey).

While in the book Rachel insists to her therapist (and the reader) that she “turns everything into a story” as a form of empowerment…

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

…She still comes off as an infuriating wimp, largely because book-Mark doesn’t seem to have a single redeeming quality, and her final gesture of throwing a key lime pie at him (recipe included!) is disappointingly feeble.

In addition to Streep and Nicholson’s twinkly chemistry, the movie also boats an outstanding supporting cast, including Catherine O’Hara as the biggest gossip in D.C., Stockard Channing (giving a master class in side-eye), Milos Forman, Maureen Stapleton, and Steven Hill as Rachel’s father.

Stray Thoughts and Observations:

This is also Natasha’s Lyonne’s first screen credit, billed as “Rachel’s niece”. I think you can spot her passed out on someone’s lap during the wedding scene.

A minor conflict in the movie concerns Rachel having to judge a rice pudding contest long-distance from Washington. My screening note for the scene reads “LOL white people problems”.

The movie’s sole tip to the book’s surreal humor is an ongoing gag in which Rachel keeps turning on PBS to find Alistair Cooke narrating her ongoing marital drama, as if bringing Masterpiece Theatre viewers up to speed on the latest installment of “Upstairs, Downstairs”.


The current paperback edition by Vintage has a bland chick-lit cover that, like the movie poster, doesn’t hint at the actual contents.

The movie is available on DVD and streaming through Amazon.

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